September 21, 2010
The State of Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fast approaching a fork in the road.
Down one path lies a future of settlement expansion, continued control over the entire West Bank and a population under Israeli rule in which non-Jews outnumber Jews.
Some Israelis to the prime minister’s right see no problem on this path. They are consciously supporting a “one-state solution” in which Israel keeps all the land without addressing how non-Jews maintain the rights necessary to maintain Israel’s democratic character. Others, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, believe this is Israel’s path by default, since there is no way to achieve peace in this generation.
The cost to Israel of going down this path, however, is further international isolation and a place as a pariah among the nations. Down this path lies never-ending conflict and little promise of long-term security, or even survival, for the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The other choice is compromise, some of it painful to many Israelis. On this path, Israel establishes an eastern border based on the pre-1967 borders (with equal land swaps) and builds only within that border, relinquishing dreams of Greater Israel. It removes far-flung settlements and relocates their Jewish residents within the country’s borders. It acknowledges Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state and agrees to compensate Palestinian refugees.
In return, Israel will get solid international commitment to its security and legitimacy, recognition of its borders and acceptance in the region by its neighbors.
Stark choices also face those in the United States who care deeply about Israel’s future and about peace and stability in the Middle East.
On the left, some criticized the new direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as fruitless before they even began and are now preparing to badmouth any compromises made to keep alive the chances of negotiated resolution to the conflict.
Their aversion to Netanyahu makes it hard for them to accept that he may be the one best positioned to lead them to the promised land of peace. Their answers—increasing international pressure on Israel, holding out for other leadership or banking on a solution imposed by a U.S. president or the United Nations—are far more likely dead ends than paths to conflict resolution.
On the right, some already are laying the groundwork for blaming the eventual collapse of the talks on the Palestinians. They highlight a “settlement freeze” during which thousands of units of new housing were built over the pre-1967 Green Line and then ask why Palestinians won’t acknowledge Israel as a “Jewish state” at the start of talks they say should have “no preconditions.” Theirs, too, is a dead-end path filled with zero-sum politics and blame games.
So here we all are at the fork in the road, in search of the path that brings stability to the Middle East, peace to all its people and long-term security for Israel as the democratic, national home of the Jewish people.
For the prime minister, the first step on the road should be to suspend settlement construction just a bit longer—not even a full freeze, simply the compromise that he himself shaped last fall—so that negotiations can continue. Down the road it will mean far tougher concessions and sacrifices—on both sides. But defining a border ends the debate over settlements forever, and whatever building is delayed in the short term can be quickly and legitimately undertaken in communities that through negotiation are recognized as within the State of Israel.
For the American Jewish community, it is time to move past recriminations and finger pointing, to stop worshiping the ideal and to accept the possible. It is time to pledge support to any Israeli prime minister who chooses to make the tough decisions needed to end the conflict though a negotiated two-state solution.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said last week that he anticipates opposition from some parts of the American Jewish community as Israel makes further moves for peace, and he appealed for support from American Jews as Israel prepares to take risks for peace.
It’s not the first time an Israeli official has lamented the lack of vocal support for efforts to reach peace from Jewish Americans. Support from Jewish Americans is never short when Israel is at war, under attack or simply under pressure. But when it makes moves for peace, support can be much harder to come by.
The fork in the road is clear for the prime minister and for American Jews. The time for decision is now.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street.